It was a Monday morning and I’d woken up early. Like everyone I know, the first thing I did was pick up my phone and open my email. There I found my first ever invitation to be interviewed on a podcast. My heart leapt. I felt excited and terrified in equal measure.
The invitation was for one of my favourite podcasts, ACT Root to Fruit. It follows the host, Marcel Tassara, as he explores the behavioural science that underpins his work as a therapist. It’s a podcast interviewing expert scientists, made for other therapists. People I greatly admire have already been interviewed on this series.
As if I’d just won the lead role in a Broadway Show, I somewhat embarrassingly thought “wow, I’ve MADE IT!” This was followed instantly by “what if I MESS IT UP??” Then came a familiar stream of thoughts, including:
“What if I can’t think of anything to say?”
“What if I ramble on too much?”
“I don’t know enough to be on this podcast”
“I might say something stupid”
“What if I get too anxious and freeze?”
These thoughts dropped one-by-one into my consciousness across the day, appearing at random moments rather than all at once. With each, I recognized the familiar voice of my perfectionistic self-criticism. I knew this was coming from my long-term fear of failing.
Fear of failure is the fear that you will make a mistake or cause something to go wrong, leaving you feeling guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, and humiliated. A “failure” can be any outcome where you do not meet your own expectations. Failures might include:
- Making a mistake in your work or assignment such as spelling, grammar, or calculations
- Getting feedback on your performance
- Forgetting something such as locking your keys in the car
- Looking silly or embarrassing yourself
- Saying the wrong thing or being awkward
- People not liking you
- Unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings
- Not achieving any goal you’ve set for yourself
In the past, these thoughts might have terribly upset me, and my fear would have defined what I did next. I might have delayed responding to the email. I might have even politely declined the opportunity. Yet I was able to say “yes” because applied the skills I’d learned from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (called ACT, which is pronounced as a word rather than an acronym) is a third wave of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that helps people build psychological flexibility. In his recent book A Liberated Mind, Dr. Steven Hayes describes psychological flexibility as “the ability to feel and think with openness, to attend voluntarily to your experience of the present moment, and to move your life in directions that are important to you, building habits that allow you to live life in accordance with your values and aspirations” (Hayes 2019).
I applied four skills of psychological flexibility to this situation. They were:
- Slow down and use mindfulness to notice my automatic reactions
- Allow the presence of these uncomfortable inner experiences without attempting to change them or get away from them
- Consider what is deeply important to me (my values) and what would move me towards those values
- Take action that is aligned with those values
Let’s look at each of these in more detail. As I walk through my story, think about how you could apply these skills in a situation where you are scared of failing. To guide you, I’ve provided some questions to prompt self-reflection and suggestions for how to start practicing these skills yourself.
1. Using mindfulness to notice your automatic reactions
The first emotion I had to process was my initial shock. I paused there for a moment and took this experience in, watching my thoughts and feelings as they arose. As the opportunity sunk in across the day and each new thought landed, I paid particular attention to any unwanted and uncomfortable physical sensations in my body. I also watched the effect they had on me. Each came with a small spike in anxiety, a slight pinching feeling in my chest, and a subtle drop in my stomach.
What I was practicing was mindfulness—the ability to notice your full experience as if you are watching it from a distance. Many people think of mindfulness as sitting still and meditating, but this use of mindfulness in real-time gave me greater awareness and control over how I responded.
How do you feel when you are scared of making a mistake? What physical sensations do you notice in your body? Try to be specific. Notice where the sensations are located in your body and try to describe them. You might use words like churning, tightness, tension, heaviness, or sinking.
Over the coming week, notice each time these specific feelings arise in you, and how you respond. Watch out for patterns of avoidance and attempts to alleviate the sensations. In these moments, your discomfort is controlling your behaviour. This pattern is what you want to change.
2. Allowing the presence of uncomfortable inner experiences
As my self-critical thoughts continued across the day, I noticed a strong urge to escape them, however, I didn’t act on this urge. I felt uncomfortable but I didn’t try to change it. I knew that I wanted to go ahead and record this podcast even though I was nervous. I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable knowing that the feelings would eventually pass.
Across the week, whenever you notice these particular uncomfortable physical sensations in your body, take a moment to explore them. Learn to recognise them. Label them. You might not like them, but can you allow them to be there for a minute or two? Remember, all emotions rise and fall. Take a few deep breaths to steady yourself if these feelings are particularly intense and uncomfortable.
3. Considering what is important—your values
Aware of my fear of failure (such a familiar friend!), across the day I thought about what was important to me. In other words, my values. I love helping people uncover their own perfectionism and overcome their fear of failure. I love to help them explore how it undermines them in their lives, and ultimately change the unhelpful ways they’ve been avoiding this fear. And I love teaching other therapists (who I’d be reaching with this podcast) because when therapists learn new skills, they can help so many more people with these problems. (And did you know therapists can struggle with fear of failing too?)
Think about your values. If you could live your best life, what would you be doing? How would you spend your time? Consider your family, friendships, the ability to do rewarding and meaningful work, adventures you’d love to have, or being able to help people. Write down your answers to these questions and circle the words or phrases that resonate most for you.
If risking failure could move you towards this life, would it be worth doing, even if it was uncomfortable?
4. Taking steps to move towards your values
Being aware of my emotions and with my values firmly in mind, I leaned into my discomfort. I thought about how I would do this podcast. Knowing it was important to me to do well, I wanted to prepare. I checked I had the right equipment. I thought about what I would say (without rehearsing). I even practiced by finding another interview opportunity and doing a recording. This preparation helped my anxiety to ease. Although I was still a little nervous on the day, I was able to focus on having fun.
What small steps could you take that would move you towards your values? Write down one tiny risk you could take that would move you towards your values? Commit to doing this in the next day or two.
By applying the skills of ACT, I was able to respond in a way that was psychologically flexible. I tried something new, learned a new skill, and gained this wonderful opportunity—and it worked out pretty well too. You can find the resulting podcast here.
Next time there is an opportunity to risk failure and try something new, try to make room for your discomfort. If you can take steps towards your values in the presence of your fear of failure, you might be surprised by the outcome.
Hayes, S. 2019. A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters. New York: Avery.
About Jennifer Kemp MPsych(Clinical)
Jennifer is a Clinical Psychologist who works with clients who are struggling with perfectionism and the mental health problems perfectionism facilitates and maintains. Jennifer integrates ACT, behaviour analysis, exposure and Compassion-Focused Therapy approaches in her therapeutic and consultation work. Jennifer presents internationally on the topic of perfectionism and is available for public speaking, conferences, and workshops.